WCMA curator lectures on Hitler’s art

As the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) exhibit “Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna 1906-1913” moves into its final month, a variety of different events will shed further light on the history surrounding the art on display in the exhibition. On Sept. 28, Deborah Rothschild, curator of exhibitions at WCMA, spoke to a group of alumni about the significance of Hitler’s Vienna years. The exhibition is part of the Vienna Project, a collaboration among various Berkshire institutions exploring the art and culture of Vienna.

In her talk on Saturday, Rothschild provided an overview of the exhibition, giving a chronological account of the years that Hitler spent in Vienna and using slides to provide concrete examples of how the aesthetic considerations that Hitler was exposed to in Vienna manifested themselves in the art of the Third Reich. Rather than restrict herself to one type of art, Rothschild addressed how art forms as diverse as Wagnerian operas, crude anti-Semitic drawings and rousing political orations came to be both adopted and adapted by Hitler. She described the Third Reich as a “union of barbarism and culture, fueled by the aesthetic ambition to beautify the world.”

While the primary concentration was on the art that influenced Hitler, perhaps the most interesting point that Rothschild made was in reference to Hitler’s inability to incorporate the human figure into his own art. His inability to draw the human form was one of the primary reasons for his repeated rejections from the Vienna Fine Arts Academy. The lack of human figures in his paintings begs the question of whether his inability to conceive of the human being in his art made it that much easier for him to annihilate an estimated six million human beings in his life.

The exhibition has drawn a large amount of national media attention since its inception in mid-July, with reviews of the show featured in Newsweek, The New Yorker and The New York Times. The reviews have been largely positive with the exception of one highly critical review featured in The Wall Street Journal. The review, by Lee Rosenbaum, paints the exhibition as an “insidious” attempt to re-write history and takes issue with the exhibition’s central thesis that Hitler was motivated primarily by aesthetic instead of political considerations.

Upon reading the review and her subsequent article in the Journal in which she takes it upon herself to “criticize the [other] critics” for applauding the exhibition, one wonders whether Rosenbaum has a personal vendetta against WCMA, or if she simply found her drive in on Route 2 to be particularly irksome.

Although Rothschild did not initially expect the high level of media attention the show has received, she said that the attention has been for the most part gratifying. In an interview after the lecture, she said, “I feel the topic merits attention because even more than a half a century later people are still dealing with the trauma of the Third Reich crimes and trying to come to terms with how it all happened. Thus, exploration of Hitler’s early years, especially looking into the forces that shaped him, is timely.”

As a possible target for anti-Semitism, the show has perhaps been fortunate to have been spared from attack. The only incident arose two weeks ago, when pamphlets claiming the Holocaust never happened were found to have been inserted into a few of the programs for the exhibition, but Rothschild describes this as a single isolated incident.

According to Rothschild, the general response to the exhibition has been “99% positive.” She said those people who responded negatively did so based mainly upon the view that any exhibition that portrays Hitler in a human light serves only to give him attention. “Many people feel that exploring Hitler’s early years explains him and thereby humanizes him making him more sympathetic. But I feel seeing him as a human makes him more horrific and looking at how he developed brings understanding, not sympathy,” she said.

Putting together the exhibition allowed her to reexamine the role his early years played in shaping his future. “It is fascinating to see the role of fantasy – dreams of medieval knighthood, Nordic myth and grandiose architecture – throughout Hitler’s life, including his Vienna years and later during the Nazi epoch,” she said.

It is fascinating to think that had Hitler possessed only a little more talent, he could have spent his life scraping by as just another third-rate Viennese artist. “He wanted to be an artist,” Rothschild said. “One sees how at a certain point, around 1908, his life could have taken any number of directions that might have led to a very different biography.”

Upcoming events scheduled for this weekend include the “Prelude to a Nightmare Symposium,” featuring a keynote address to be given by Brigitte Hamann, the author of Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship, which was the initial inspiration for the exhibit.